It was a crisp, dew-soaked Sunday morning in June, on the rural outskirts of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and Temple Hill Motorcross Park had come to an eerie standstill. The adrenaline-laced buzz of smoky two-strokes racing in all directions fell silent, save for the crackle of a single corner-worker's yellow flag whipping through the brisk morning air. Those in attendance stood in a solemn shock, their gaze fixed on one tiny figure lying motionless in the dirt.
A competitive freestyle BMX rider and drifter, Robert Parsons was beginning to discover weekend motocross riding as something he could enjoy apart from the responsibilities of daily life. Representing his sponsors, the workload of his job as a metal fabricator, and his plans for building a recently acquired Nissan 180SX were usually nowhere in mind during these precious few hours. But in this instant, they—mixed with sheer terror—flooded his mind. Moments earlier, Rob had come up short on a step-up and found himself in a mid-air collision course with a nasty-looking fence. He ditched his bike and avoided impalement, but landed awkwardly straight-legged, breaking both his legs (tibia, fibula, and femur), puncturing both lungs, and exploding his spine, completely severing his spinal cord. Of course, he didn't know all that at the time; he only knew he was unable to move and was quickly becoming unable to breathe.
Before fading from consciousness, Rob pierced the silence with three uncharacteristic words. "I need help!"
Rob spent the next few hours in transit between two hospitals, being resuscitated in and out of consciousness. Lengthy surgeries and a near-fatal E. coli infection stretched his hospital stay to six months, and as he became aware of the extent of his injuries, he realized his entire life had changed. "I had no idea what I was going to do," he recalls. "I felt dead inside."
Inpatient confinement gave way to outpatient rehabilitation, and Rob began seeing possibilities for living the life he'd begun to build for himself. BMX was out, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized building his car and continuing with drifting were more than possible. He had two choices: He could resign to a life of disability (and really, who could blame him?), or he could harness his ingenuity and new mobility and simply get on with it.
Rob's career as a metal fabricator was waiting for him (albeit with a greater emphasis on 3D CAD, CNC machining, and structural design), and after a brief readjustment period, he managed to fabricate a rotisserie at his shop and strip the new car down to its shell. "Once I got that far," he says, "I knew the rest was possible."
The project required a huge investment of labor and money, and as much of a "DIY guy" as Rob was, he knew he couldn't do it alone. He drew up a plan that outlined exactly what he wanted to do—a pretty lofty goal. "I presented my proposal to a lot of companies and looked for partners. There wasn't much belief that it would actually happen," he laughed. That first year was a lot of personal investment for Rob, and a lot of rejection. "Being turned down was tough at first, but after a while it wasn't such a big deal. I found a tight group of friends and sponsors willing to help, and I knew we could do it, even if we couldn't convince the world just yet."
After years of drifting four-cylinders (past cars included a 450hp SR-powered Silvia and a RWD Corolla), he wanted linear V-8 torque. To make room for what would today be a Vortech-supercharged, Schwanke Engines 5.7L GM LS with a T56 Magnum six-speed transmission, he hacked the front and rear of his S13 to almost nothing, fabricating structural reinforcements and "bash bar" supports in key areas. All this allowed him to shed weight, make room for the larger powertrain and rear-mounted cooling system, and allow easy access to the car's footworks.
"The hand controls were something I started thinking about in the hospital," Rob tells. "The actual controls you see are a modified version of what you can find anywhere." But since pro drifting requires control of a clutch and gears, Rob devised a motorcycle-style clutch lever and thumb buttons that electro-hydraulically actuate an ACT twin-disc clutch and H-pattern gearbox through a modified Mastershift system. The modifications are part of Rob's patent-pending product and move 600 pounds of pressure plate force in 0.2 seconds completely linearly to the input of the hand controls. Rob can clutch-kick, feather the clutch, shift up or down at will—everything he would be able to do in a traditional setup. He also rigged his hydraulic handbrake to disengage the clutch when it's pulled. The rest is standard issue: Push the lever down for throttle, toward the dash for brake. Standing burnouts in one swift motion, with no side-stepping required? Awesome.
As soon as the car started running, "We started changing a lot of minds," Rob says. His network and resource base grew, and finding help quickly became less of an issue. One company that stepped up to the plate early on was Hoonigan. Before his accident, Rob met and befriended Tony Angelo and Ryan Tuerck at a drifting demo in Alberta and then went on to judge DMCC West competition with Tony. Once they, along with founders Brian Scotto and Ken Block, learned what Rob was up to this time around, they backed him all the way. Rob starred in an episode of Network A's Tuerck'd in which Ryan and Chris Forsberg try their hand at drifting his car (humorously). "Seeing it come together, getting behind the wheel again and being a part of it all...," Rob explains, "I began to think, 'I could really use this as a tool to help others find that same excitement.'"
In the months preceding press time, Rob rebuilt the car with assistance from partner Vortech with two goals in mind: Prepare the car for a full '15 season of Top Drift competition in Southern California, and build it to be used as a tool for instructional driving clinics through his newly formed Chairslayers Foundation—a non-profit organization dedicated to getting paraplegics like Rob behind the wheel of high-performance cars. The first of these clinics was recently held at Willow Springs Test Circuit in California and was featured in an episode of Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, where Rob spent the day with U.K. paraplegic drifting enthusiast Ben Conolly, teaching him the finer points of hand-controlled drifting and—we think—instilling in him the motivation to work past his own challenges. "That's what it's all about," Rob surmises. "Differently abled or not, we're all working toward goals in life, and are all faced with challenges. Sometimes we just need a little help to get there."